European Council chief stresses ‘right to peaceful assembly’ in talks with Xi

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European Council president Charles Michel stressed the human right to peaceful assembly and highlighted the availability of coronavirus vaccines in a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping held amid a crackdown on protests against Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy.

“We made it very clear that European companies are available to provide vaccines, if those vaccines will be agreed by the official authorities in China,” Michel told a press conference after the three-hour meeting in Beijing on Thursday.

The encounter in the Great Hall of the People made Michel the latest in a string of world leaders to hold talks in person with the Chinese president following his emergence from several years of isolation caused by Covid-19.

Michel’s comments on vaccine provision highlighted the Chinese government’s refusal to approve foreign Covid jabs for mass use, which has cut the country off from the latest mRNA vaccine technology.

During a visit to Beijing last month, German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a deal for US drugmaker Pfizer to supply its vaccines to foreigners in China, after more than a year of regulatory roadblocks.

Low rates of full vaccination among the elderly are one of China’s biggest challenges for lifting Covid curbs. However, Beijing recently approved a nasally inhaled Covid vaccine by CanSino Biologics and is preparing to roll it out in 13 cities.

Xi’s third term as leader of the Communist party has been shaken by protests against his signature zero-Covid policy that are of a scale not seen in decades in China. The backlash has forced his administration to ease its rigid strategy of eliminating the disease through lockdowns that battered the economy.

Michel said he also raised the issue of human rights with Xi. “The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental right enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights, and in national institutions,” he added.

Xi told Michel that Brussels and Beijing had no “real strategic differences or conflicts” and that he hoped they would join together to “oppose decoupling”, according to Chinese state media.

Michel said the two leaders also discussed Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Beijing has come under increasing pressure from western countries to use its economic leverage and political influence to force Moscow to end the war, which began in February and has led to Putin making a range of escalatory threats, including the potential to use nuclear weapons.

Xi “made very clear that China is not providing any weapons to Russia, and . . . made it very clear that the nuclear threat is not acceptable and not responsible. This is, I think, an important message,” Michel said after the meeting.

Washington applied public and private pressure on Beijing not to help arm Moscow at the start of the war and US officials say China has not supplied any weapons to Russia.

However, China remains Russia’s most important ally and has refused to condemn the invasion or support western sanctions aimed at curbing the Kremlin’s ability to continue the war.

“It is important to prevent an escalation or expansion of the crisis, stay committed to promoting talks for peace, manage the spillovers of the crisis, and watch out for any risk of bloc confrontation,” Beijing’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Trying to alienate as much as possible other western capitals — especially the major EU powers — from Washington has always been a part of Beijing’s foreign policy,” said Shi Yinhong, an adviser to the Chinese government. An impending world recession and the tensions it would create could help Beijing’s strategy, Shi said.

Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

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